Fine a cappella singing from Supertonic Choir and Tawa College Blue Notes

Christmas at the Gallery

Music by Mendelssohn, Whitacre, Pompallier, Stanford, David Hamilton, Rheinberger, Childs, Swider, Britten, Frank Martin, and well-known carols

Supertonic Choir and Tawa College Blue Notes Choir conducted by Isaac Stone

New Zealand Portrait Gallery

Wednesday, 9 December 2015, 7pm

Once again, Supertonic performed to a virtually full venue – this time, at the Portrait Gallery on the waterfront. I concluded that about 140 people were present. As on the previous occasion, in June, the audience comprised people I don’t see at other concerts; I knew no-one in the audience. I hope that their enjoyment of this concert will enthuse them to attend other choral concerts.

I have been to concerts in the Gallery before, but the chairs have always been arranged along one long side of the narrow space, in several long rows, whereas this time they were arranged 12 seats per row, in 12 rows from front to back across the narrow width of the room. This was not as satisfactory for seeing the performers, and, I conjecture, giving a different acoustic effect, as well as probably seating fewer.

The conductor welcomed everyone, but I have to repeat what I said in my review last time: if you speak prepare what you are going to say, then say it fluently and succinctly; it is simply easier on the ear. The entire programme was sung unaccompanied, with Isaac Stone singing the notes after consulting his tuning fork. This is no mean accomplishment for choirs singing a full programme.

The concert opened with Mendelssohn’s Sechs Sprüche. It was a pity that the printed programme did not given the titles of the six individual Christmas songs, since the audience unnecessarily applauded each song, and since only the German title for the set was given, many audience members were unaware of where we were in the programme, not realising that the six made up one item. Nevertheless, the singing immediately demonstrated blend, shape and colour, in the first song (‘Christmas Day’). The songs were sung in German, but I have given English translations of the titles here. The acoustic proved to be lively.

The words were clearly articulated in this and in most of the works in the programme. Others of the songs (‘New Year’s Day’, ‘On Ascension Day’, ‘At Passiontide’, ‘In Advent’ and ‘On Good Friday’) featured gorgeous bass singing and rich harmony. The tenors were not quite as strong. All demonstrated Mendelssohn’s fine word-setting. Beautiful pianissimos were notable. One song included four solo voices at the opening, later joined by the choir. It was short and very effective. In another, the opening was low in the voices, giving a rich, mellow sound.

Eric Whitacre is a popular American choral composer, and his ‘Sleep’, with words by C.A. Silvestri, is a prime example of his writing. The singing was notable for fine unanimity, and appropriate expression of the words.

‘Mo Maria’ was something of a curiosity, written in Maori by Bishop Pompallier, who apparently became fluent in both Maori and English, without abandoning his native French. I find there are numbers of entries for it on Wikipedia, and it was sung at the re-interment of his remains in New Zealand in 2002, 160 years after it was written. It featured rich blocks of harmony, though having a rather conventional hymn-type melody.

Supertonic was then replaced by Blue Notes choir from Tawa College – quite a large choir for a cappella singing, but their ability and hard work proved that size was not a handicap. They began with Stanford’s lovely ‘Beati quorum via’, sung, as were all their items, from memory. The choir’s tone was very good most of the time, despite occasional breathiness. Splendid phrasing and dymanics marked the performance. The basses gave a marvellous sound – all the more commendable in a school choir.

David Hamilton’s ‘Willow Song’ began with altos singing the theme, accompanied by the other parts. The words were very clear, and the hummed passages sonorous. The choir stood in a semi-circle, not a block, so the sound was distributed, not concentrated. The Rheinberger piece, ‘Abendlied’, sung in German, revealed some strain in the tenors, but in the main the tone continued to be excellent. There was a wonderful diminuendo at the end.

Blue Notes’ last selection was ‘Salve Regina’ by New Zealander David Childs. This was the only piece on the programme which had been sung by the choir in the National Finale of The Big Sing, in August, at which they received a bronze award. This ws a most sympathetic and imaginative setting of the words, but not in a particularly contemporary style. As well as an appealing and well-sung soprano solo, the men-only section was quite splendid. The choir showed subtlety and sensitivity to the words, always singing with flawless intonation.

After the interval Supertonic returned to sing ‘Cantus Gloriosus’ by Polish composer Józef Świder (d. 2014). Here, the music was smooth and peacful, but build to a great crescendo. The precision of singing consonants enhanced the effect superbly. ‘Prayer of the children’ by Kurt Bestor, a contemporary American composer (arranged by Andrea S. Klouse) was sung in The Big Sing by Dunedin’s Sings Hilda choir. An unemotive setting, it was full of fortissimos. Yet the voices sang with good tone and no evidence of strain.

Blue Notes joined with Supertonic to sing Britten’s ‘Hymn to the Virgin’. It is in English, with interspersed Latin phrases as a kind of echo, the latter being sung by the students. It was written when the composer was only 17 years old. It begins slowly, then becomes brighter and faster, with the final section going back to slow meditation. Beautiful music, and beautifully performed.

The final item was an ‘Agnus Dei’ from a Mass by Swiss composer Frank Martin. It is a difficult and complex work, for double choir. I noted a little misfire on a top note, but this was a very rare aberration. There were exciting harmonies, and the choirs’ last chords were greeted by a siren in the street – an appropriate mark of the excellent singing we had heard.

That was not all; the audience then joined in the singing of ten popular carols, with the choirs (perhaps the exception to ‘popular’ was the ‘Coventry Carol’). They were mostly taken at a rollicking pace, to end an enjoyable evening’s entertainment.

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